A Tale of Two Wives
Dear Reader: This article is not meant to be a universal statement of "the difference between men and women," or anything like that. This is not a global proclamation regarding the problems in all marriages. I offer it simply as food for thought. It is up to you, the reader, to determine where, if anywhere, its applicability lies within the context of your marriage. That being said, I would like to challenge wives with this: IF you are married to Mike or Rob, then are you Doris, or are you Susan?
Some women will read this and respond, "Pffft! That was obviously written by a man." Yep. You got that right. But before you write me off as irrelevant (in perfect accord with society's predominantly feminist, cynical sentiment), please consider that I didn't have to write this. I could have simply stayed in my man-cave, had another beer, and enjoyed working on my own projects, knowing that you have no care or appreciation for what I am doing; knowing that women don't really care about men or their desires; knowing that women don't want to understand us. See, I could be cynical too, if I chose to. But instead I offer this as an insight—if you are so inclined to inquire—into the psyche of the one whom you married.
"You're like the dad I never had," said Doris, with a gleam in her eye, and that tireless smile that Rob had found so attractive since the first day they'd met. "My dad never took me on a trip to the coast like this. He also never brought me flowers or a gift, like you sometimes do." Doris leaned over toward Rob, pressing herself against him. As they embraced, sitting on a driftwood log, the light morning sea breeze wafting in off the surf, Rob thought to himself what a lucky man he was to have found such a prize.
"Dinner's cold now," said Susan from across the room as Mike came in the front door. Mike entered the apartment cautiously. Susan's back was turned as she sorted some laundry. "You're late again."
"I'm sorry, honey," said Mike. "I was determined to get home on time, but right as I got up from my desk O'Connell hit me with some last-minute edits on the Park Street proposal. I know I should have called. I'm sorry."
"You know, I work hard at home all day," said Susan, "and I wish you could simply show some appreciation by getting home on time for dinner. You remind me of my dad. He never came home for dinner. He just spent all his time at work."
Of course he knew she was right. He knew that being late was impolite at best, yet he pondered the scenario in which he had told his boss, "Nope. No can do. Sorry, but I can't help you, 'cause I've got other commitments." Yes, he could make that his habit at work if he wanted to remain at the staff clerical level forever.
Mike thought to himself, "I should have stopped to get some flowers... No; wouldn't have helped; would've just made me later. No, wait; late is late. It doesn't matter how late. Yes, I should've picked up some flowers. I wonder if that would have helped right now.. ."
Growing up, Rob never doubted that his mother had loved him. She'd told him directly many times that she loved him. But there were also the many times, when correcting him for his childish behavior or for what she perceived to be a selfish attitude, that she had reminded him of the many things she had done for him—as though he owed her a debt of gratitude.
Now, sitting in the breeze on the beach under the warm glow of the morning sun, with the love of his life in his arms, Rob found it ironic that the subtle pain of his childhood could, if he let it, even now hurt him. Suddenly a flood of bad memories rolled through his mind, and he felt once again the intense feelings of loneliness and detachment that he'd experienced as a child, even though he always knew that his mother loved him. How could this be?
Deciding, against his better judgement, to indulge himself in a moment's contemplation, Rob recalled the time his mother expressed her disappointment that he had not shown more diligence in keeping the neighbor lady's lawn trimmed. It was a favor he had agreed to do simply out of neighborly love, and because his mother had requested it. But when he told his mother, "Mom, I don't mind mowing her lawn when I can fit it into my schedule, but lately I've been busy with school work, and football practice," Rob's mother responded, "You're just making excuses. You know, I do a lot for you. I drive you and your friends around to all of your sporting events. It takes up a lot of my time. Now the least you could do is mow Mrs. Simmon's lawn once a week."
Rob only now—twenty-seven years later—came to understand the source of his childhood frustration. And he only now was able to formulate his thoughts into the words he had wanted to say to his mother those many times... "Mom, I thought you drove me around to my sporting events because you loved me. I never knew that I was making a purchase or a trade. And when I mowed Mrs. Simmon's lawn, I thought I was doing it as a favor, out of love for her, as well as for you. I didn't realize that I was repaying a debt. But now, if I've got this straight, you're implying that because you want to express kindness to your neighbor, I am now indebted to a third party—a debt that I never signed onto. I feel more like a tool for your use, than an object of your love and affection. If this is the way things are, then I would rather you did not do me any favors. I will find another ride to my games. I will do my chores at home, and you can love me for who I am, if you want to, but I don't want to live a life of obligation or debt to whomever you desire to bless. I also wish not to live my life in some kind of balance, my generosities being weighed against my indulgences, especially if that balance is controlled and interpreted by someone else. That's not love, and I want nothing to do with it. I cannot live that way."
Rob wondered to himself why he had never said those words to his mother, then he knew the answer. 'Mom would have become angry,' he thought to himself. 'It's no wonder I never could tell her what I really felt, or what I really thought. It was just easier to tell her what I knew she wanted to hear. That way I could keep the peace, even if it meant apologizing for wrongs that I knew I hadn't committed. And no wonder I grew up feeling like a coward with no backbone.
'The thing is, I know that I loved my mom, and that self-preservation was not my only motive. At least part of my motivation was my love for her, but I'll never get any credit for that. Nice guys really do finish last.'
Mike pondered how he might make amends to Susan for coming home late from work—not once, but many times. He thought, "I know: I'll set us up for a weekend at the coast. It'll be great." Even though he didn't have the cash on hand to pay for it, he thought he'd just run his credit card, knowing he'd just have to find a way to cover it later. "It's worth it," he thought, "because we really need this time together." In his mind, a little short-term debt was well worth the prospect of some romance and intimacy with his beloved Susan.
Noticing that certain contemplative look on Rob's face, Doris playfully punched him in the ribs. "Hey. What are you thinking about?"
"Oh. Sorry. Yeah... just thinking about my mom."
"Okay, but, hey, it's our twentieth anniversary, your mom's not here, and I really think you've got better things to think about." She zipped down her jacket halfway, pulling it back just far enough to flash him a view of her bikini top, then quickly zipped it back up.
"Hey, wait. Lemme see that again."
"Nope. it's for later. You gotta buy me breakfast first."
"No, it's the lining of your jacket. That's a really cool lining. I just wanna see your jacket lining."
"Pffft! Yeah, right," she said as she stood up, "I forgot how dialed-in you are to the nuances of garment manufacturing." She looked at him with her tireless smile, and a body language indicating her intention to bolt. "...more like, the nuances of garment removal!" she shouted as she took off down the beach.
Laughing, and running to catch up, Rob shouted, "Hey, you started it! You know what happens whenever I see a lining like that."
Headed for the coast, in a nice car that Mike had borrowed from a friend, Mike found himself thinking, "This is great. I'm in a nice car that handles really well, I've got my girl by my side… what else is there in life?" It was the fourth of July, and hurrying to get there for the fireworks show, Mike drove a little more aggressively than he otherwise might, enjoying the excellent handling of the car.
"Do you have to drive so fast through these turns?" said Susan. "It's unsafe. Why don't you slow down?"
"Well, we both talked about seeing the fireworks, and I'm just trying to make sure we get there in time," Mike said. "This car handles really well. I'm not being unsafe. I'm driving slower than I would if you weren't in the car."
"Yeah, well I don't feel safe. And if you're gonna drive unsafely just to make up for leaving behind schedule, then you're just being inconsiderate, that's all."
Mike thought to himself as he slowed down, "I thought I was being considerate in trying to get her there on time, but I guess not."
As the waitress refilled his coffee, Rob said to Doris, "I'm the luckiest man on earth."
"I was just thinking the same thing," Doris replied.
"That you're the luckiest girl on earth?"
"No, that you're the luckiest man on earth." She smiled. "Seriously, though, why do you think that?"
"Because I can both love you, and be myself. I don't have to tailor myself or my behavior to meet your moral criteria, plus it seems like you always appreciate my gestures of love, no matter how lame or feeble they are. I know I don't always please you, but you have not let my self get in the way of your love for me. Most guys don't have that. Most guys walk on eggshells around their wives, like I always had to around my mom."
"Yeah, when we were first married, I realized I was having that effect on you. You were always trying to please me, and it sometimes came off as dishonest or disingenuous on your part. Then I read somewhere that many women actually thwart their man's manliness by reacting to him in accordance to their own expectations, rather than in accordance to who he is."
"Wow," said Rob, "I think I remember that. You suddenly got nicer, and a lot easier to live with. How come we never talked about this?"
"Well," said Doris, "some one noted that it seemed the couples that talked the most about their relationships were the ones with the most unhealthy relationships. So I figured, the less talk, the better, I guess."
Doris had a bite of her omelet, then continued. "The interesting part was, once I trained myself not to react to my own expectations, most of your weird behavior was no longer offensive to me, and I liked you more. Instead of being offensive, you were just weird." She smiled. "And I can live with weird." She sipped her coffee. "Pretty weird, huh?"
"You're weird," said Rob, with a mischievous grin.
"No, you are," she quickly replied. It was one of their favorite exchanges: the famous, "no, you are" response—so vacuous of meaning, yet so universally applicable...
You're being unreasonable.
No, you are.
You're just trying to weasel out of a commitment.
No, you are.
It appears to me that you are benefitting the most in this deal.
No, you are.
After ten wordless minutes enjoying each other's company, Doris continued, "You know, it was very strange, and though it makes perfect sense now, at the time it seemed very counterintuitive..."
"What do you mean?" he asked.
"Well, the first year we were married, it seemed like we had already begun drifting apart. I would ask you your opinion on something, and your response would be muted, or subdued... just basically unenthusiastic. It was like you didn't really want to be involved in the conversation."
"Yeah, I remember that. I recognized it at the time, and I didn't like it. I often asked myself why I was having the tendency to avoid certain conversations with my wife, though I couldn't predict what type of conversation would trigger it. Just thinking about it right now makes me uncomfortable."
"Well," said Doris, "one day I realized that I was causing the problem by criticizing your thought process. But I didn't really get it until I learned about the time-delay phenomenon."
"The time-delay phenomenon?"
"Yeah. It's brought on by the fact that when we're in an argument, our deepest objections are not the ones we're expressing. But our deepest objections are the ones that we reflect back on later, though they might never get brought up and addressed, especially for men. I learned that a man will go away after an argument and mull it all over, and if he's the type who doesn't enjoy arguing, he'll concentrate his thoughts on how to avoid future arguments.
"The mystery to me was that, though you seemed to enjoy lively, sometimes contradictory, discussion with others, I couldn't even get you to talk with me about what color to paint the house."
"Yeah. I remember that too," said Rob. "Those weren't my most shining moments."
"Well, what I finally learned was that the things I said to you in conversation A were affecting your overall response in conversation B, maybe days later. See? The time-delay phenomenon. And what I was doing wrong was commenting negatively about your way of thinking, rather than simply disagreeing with your opinion. Like, if you said, 'I think that trim should be green,' then I would say something like, 'How can you even think that?' instead of simply, 'I like blue better for the trim.' When I looked critically, I found I did that to you all the time.
"They say that when a man's wife accuses him of wrong thinking, he often doesn't know how to respond, especially if he doesn't want to hurt her. So he instead concentrates on how to avoid her criticisms of his way of thinking, and that normally results in his avoiding certain conversations. And the more she criticizes him, the worse it gets. But most men don't know or understand what's really going on, because they think it's about what they're arguing about, but it's not."
Rob enjoyed another sip of coffee, let out an over-animated sigh, and said, "So you're saying that it's not entirely the husband's fault?"
"Well I suppose that if it were, then we wouldn't be having this conversation now, would we—since there would have been nothing I could have done about it—?"
Rob lifted his coffee cup, reached across the table, and clinked it against hers, saying, "You are a genius."
"No, you are," she immediately replied.
Pulling into the overcrowded parking lot well after dusk, Mike and Susan observed that the fireworks had already begun. Mike thought to himself, "Well, this is less than optimal. So much for my ability to show my wife a good time... Maybe I can still take her to a restaurant tonight and achieve some semblance of a romantic evening..."
Quickly finding an unmarked open space on the curb, Mike parked the car. "I don't think it's a good idea to park here," remarked Susan. "It's unmarked. It's obviously not a parking space, and we'll probably get a ticket."
"You know how much I care right now if I get a ticket?" said Mike. "This much." His thumb and index finger were clamped shut.
"Okay," said Susan, "but I think it's just irresponsible to park here. We could end up getting towed."
"You married a crazy risk-taker," said Mike with a smile. "I accept full responsibility. Let's go. We're missing the show."
The fact that numerous factors (for which he was to blame) prevented Susan from enjoying the experience was not lost on Mike. He thought to himself as they searched for a place to sit, "I hope I can make up for this somehow."
As they sat and enjoyed their lazy late morning breakfast, Rob and Doris could hear a four-person conversation at a nearby table, apparently occupied by two couples. Doris motioned her eyes to the side and back twice, as if to suggest they eavesdrop on their neighbors. Rob grinned. The other couples were apparently discussing the dissolution of their business partnership. The men seemed to be amicably coming to an agreement of terms, when one wife turned to her husband and said, "Honey, you're just taking the easy way out. You have clearly put more work hours in, and you should offer to buy John's half for less than what you would sell your half for."
Rob grimmaced. Doris said, "There. Did you hear that? She probably thinks she's standing up for her man, but she doesn't realize that she just cut him off at the knees."
"Wow. That's pretty severe," said Rob. "Do you really think so?"
"Yeah," said Doris. "How much of her sentence do you think he heard after she told him he was taking the easy way out? I'll bet all he's thinking about right now is how to prove his own manliness to his wife. All he's thinking about now is his relationship with her, because it matters more to him than his business. Men can't multi-task, you know." She smiled.
"How do you know all this?" asked Rob.
"I've been doing some reading."
"Well, I gotta admit, it stung me a little when she told him he was taking the easy way out," Rob said.
"Yeah, you know she could have just left that first statement off, and if she knew better, she would get out of the habit of criticizing him like that. But most wives have no idea about all this.
"But if what I've read is true, then his performance in every other facet of life will suffer because he is constantly submitting himself to the challenge of proving himself to his own wife, which he will never achieve unless she stops criticizing him. Apparently some men don't suffer from that syndrome, but those are the ones who don't care what their wives think of them.
"So when I was confronted with all of this, I decided to assume that you cared what I thought about you, so it was up to me to make a change in order to avoid committing you to the 'approval spiral of death.'"
"Wow," said Rob. "My wife, all these years, has been shielding me from a spiral of death. I already knew I was the luckiest man on earth, but now I don't know what to say. However much I love you, I wish I could love you more."
"Yeah. I know," she said. "I love you too, you know."
"Well I think that's pretty obvious! I'd be a complete idiot not to recognize that! If I've ever failed to recognize that—and I'm pretty sure I have—then please forgive me."
"Hmmm..." she looked around the room, as if searching for ideas. "How shall I prove my forgiveness of your gross negligences? Shall I show you my jacket lining?"
"Oh, yeah!" said Rob. "The lining! There's nothing like a good jacket lining, especially when you're the one wearing the jacket!"
Waking to the sunrise in their cottage, Mike immediately reflected on last night's events. It had been a reasonably enjoyable evening, yet obviously degraded by their late arrival to the fireworks. Afterwords, the prime rib at the restaurant was good, but seemed to have been too little, too late. Now, the next morning, Mike remained married, yet unlucky. He had hoped to get lucky last night, but it just didn't happen. Romance just wasn't in the air, and Mike knew that it was his fault, for he had failed to adequately set the stage. He'd been inconsiderate in his driving, irresponsible in his parking, and late for the event. He had blown it, and thus missed his opportunity to make his wife happy.
Mike thought to himself, "Surely she'll enjoy the boat ride I have planned for us today. I hope she's not still disappointed or mad at me. Maybe today's events will go well, and tonight I'll be the lucky man."
What's the difference between Mike and Rob? Mike might ask Rob, "Rob, what's your secret? Your wife is so happy, and she seems to be so happily married to you. What are you doing that I'm not doing? I'll pay you cash for the answer. How can I make my wife as happy as you have made yours?"
I think we all know Rob's answer: "I don't know, man. I don't think it's anything I've done. I think I just got lucky when I married Doris."
And ten thousand husbands can say, "Yes, Rob. You got lucky."
So why is Rob so happy in his marriage to Doris? And how do we even know that he is so happy in his marriage? Is it because she does whatever he wants her to do? Is it because she never disagrees with him? Is it because she always submits to his leadership? Perhaps she does all these things, but those aren't the reasons he's happy.
* Rob is happy because he can be himself, and Doris still likes him.
Is it possible they've never had an argument or a fight? No. I think we can all agree that that would be impossible. Surely they have disagreed. But Doris still likes Rob.
Does Doris like Rob because Rob is such an incredibly likeable guy? Also not likely. Plenty of likeable guys have wives who don't like them very much, and Rob's probably not all that likable once you get to know his true character. No, Doris likes Rob because she at one time decided to like him, even though he had character traits and habits that she disliked, or, in her words, she found "weird."
Rob is happy because he receives the love and adoration from his wife that he wouldn't receive if he got what he deserved. He is happy because the one he loves is able to overlook his shortcomings, though they are not hidden from either of them. He is happy because his marriage is a safe place.
When Rob and Doris were married, she had certain ideas about how things would go. And specifically, she had ideas about Rob—ideas that created certain specific expectations of how he would behave. But then he surprised her by being himself.
Mike and Susan never got past this point. They've spent their marriage on the battleground of failed expectations. Habits got entrenched, and they have never been able to break free from this vicious cycle:
* She makes her expectations known, and he seeks to meet them satisfactorily, without sacrificing any more of his own person than he must.
Read the last sentence again. Do you see the immediate tension that is set up in this relationship? It didn't take long for Mike to realize that he's pretty much of a screw-up in Susan's eyes. She spends the bulk of her thought energy resenting his reluctance to meet her expectations, and he spends the bulk of his thought energy riding the fine line between meeting the minimum criteria of her satisfaction and the desire to be a man in charge of his own destiny. Does this describe your marriage? Possibly, for it is prevalent.
Obviously peaceful coexistence requires bending on both sides, but the man I'm describing is already bending, whereas many women have not the wisdom nor the tools to help them in this regard. They have become convinced that any hint of acquiescence on their part will surely lead them into indentured servitude, and they will become doormats. Our society has taught them this.
This teaching, however, is clearly anti-Christian. Were we to follow the same logic with regard to our relationship with God, we would quickly decide that we must carefully monitor everything God says, check it against what we know to be fitting for something that God should say, then either ignore or refute those things He has said which we deem unsuitable; else we should become His slaves and doormats. And this is certainly what we must do if we doubt that God loves us, for if God doesn't love us, then our trust in Him will only lead us into abject slavery under a cruel or indifferent master.
Do you see my conclusion? For wives, it is an issue of trust, faith, and grace. But many, many wives will say, "My husband has proven many times that I cannot trust him." Yes, probably true, for he is human, and possibly not the most trustworthy man in your town. So my opinion is that you should instead trust God on your husband's behalf. Trust in the Lord, for your husband's sake.
This brings us to faith. If you have no faith, you cannot trust God. A converse consideration should be all that is needed here. So I will spell it out: If you do not trust God, then you will exhibit no faith. You may think you have faith, but your faith is dead if it displays no works. And the works of faith are made manifest primarily within the context of our interpersonal relationships, viz., marriage.
And what of grace? What is it that Christians have going for them, for which people of other faiths should truly be envious? Is it not the grace of God? Yes, our God is a gracious God. He is a forgiving God.
The difference between Mike and Rob, for the purpose of this exhibition, is that Rob's wife forgives him, but Mike's wife does not forgive him. Both men seek to please their wives. Both strive to get it right next time around. Rob's wife likes him. Mike's wife would like him more if he could get his act together. Rob feels loved and affirmed. Mike hopes to be loved and affirmed. Rob is happy. Mike hopes for happiness. Rob is lucky. Mike hopes to get lucky.
Mike and Rob could easily be the same guy, for they both behave in like manner. Both work hard. Both are late for dinner sometimes. Both hope to make their wives happy. Both know that they are far from the perfect husband. But their marriages are not the same. Rob has a happy marriage; Mike hopes for a happy marriage. Rob married Doris; Mike married Susan.
See? The difference here is not the difference between Rob and Mike; it is the difference between Doris and Susan. Feminists take note: you already have the power you seek. You don't need legislated equality in order to wield it. You are already wielding your sword in every thought and action. Are you thinking in faith? Are you acting out of faith? Are you extending grace? Or are you staking your claim for equality? You cannot do both, so you must decide.
Doris decided to think and act in faith, believing that her husband knew what he was talking about—and wasn't lying—when he said that he loved her. She has made a habit of extending grace to her husband. She has a happy marriage, and her husband would do for her anything she asked.
Susan can't seem to get her husband to meet her demands, no matter how hard she tries. Though she knows that he knows well what is the right thing to do, she can't get him to do it with any consistency. Susan is frustrated, for she has a husband who just can't seem to get it right.
Susan and Doris might have fallen in love with each other's husbands and married them instead. In that case, Doris would still have the happy marriage, and Susan would be frustrated by Rob's inability to step up to the plate.
I wish the women of our society could figure this stuff out, because I know a couple of Robs, but I know a whole bunch of Mikes. They're everywhere, and our feminist movement stands firmly in the background, fanning the flames, while marriages burn down around us all.
And here's how this all pans out for everybody. Ten or twenty years down the road, Rob, even though he's still a big dork by any reasonable measure (though he has learned a few things about how to be a better husband, and though he has improved in his pursuit to be a better husband), will say, "Doris is the apple of my eye. She's the best. I love her, and she loves me. I am happy, and she is happy, and that makes me all the more happy."
Mike, twenty years down the road will say, "I love Susan. She's the apple of my eye, but... I give up, man. I'm done trying, only because I'm exhausted, and I don't know what else to try. I have poured my life into trying to make her happy. I know I'm a dork of a husband (though I have learned a few things about how to be a better husband, and I've tried to put those things into application to myself) but it has become apparent that no matter what I do, with whatever intentions, it will be either offensive or unsatisfactory to her. As a reasonable, thinking person, I have no reason to expect to win her affection by any action I might undertake. And I'm getting tired of faking like we're happy.
Note that in this tale, the husbands are both good husbands. There are bad husbands out there, and I in no way wish to say that all husbands are good, and therefore all wives should be like Doris, and not like Susan. What I wish to say is this: "Susan: is your husband a bad husband? Or are you just Susan? If you have a bad husband, then you need to seek counsel, and find a way to get out. If he's bad, then get out now! Why waste your years in a bad relationship with a bad husband? You need to escape now."
But if you're just Susan, and your husband is Mike, then consider that if he were Rob instead, your situation would likely be no different. This is because the cause of your unhappiness is not Mike. It is you. Susan, I think that a long conversation with Doris is what you need, not a new husband.
But, Susan, you needn't be offended by the fact that Mike would prefer that you make a change in your character and attitude toward him. Rob, at times, feels the same way about Doris. And taking Doris' example to heart, you can make Mike just as lucky as Rob is, in the blink of an eye. Then you will become as lucky—and as happy—as Doris, as well.